President Bush has issued his first serious threat to veto legislation. One might expect, given the president's recently stated preference for fiscal responsibility, that the threat would be inspired by some congressional plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a boondoggle. To the contrary, the president threatened to veto any attempt Congress might make to control runaway spending for the Medicare prescription drug benefit approved in 2003 and scheduled to go into effect next year.
This is a remarkable position for the president to take, since the projected cost of that benefit has doubled from the figure the White House vouched for in 2003, and could well triple.
The prescription drug bill has been a subject of contention since it was rammed through the House of Representatives in November 2003. Even at a stated price tag of $395 billion for 10 years, the bill's backers did not have the votes needed for passage. House leaders kept the voting open for an unprecedented three hours (15 minutes is traditional) during which GOP leaders twisted arms and managed to get enough votes changed in the middle of the night to pass the bill.
Just two months later, it was found out that the estimated cost of the bill was $534 billion. Not only that, but the White House not only knew of that figure before the vote, but threatened to fire an administration actuary for insubordination if he released that figure to Congress.
Figures submitted with the president's fiscal 2006 budget now show the drug benefit will cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years, but when scheduled higher premiums and deductibles and reimbursements from the states are factored in, the net 10-year cost, 2006 to 2015, will be about $720 billion.
It is time for a congress that was so uneasy about a $400 billion program that it had to violate its own traditions to get it passed to stand up to the president and say that a $720 billion program is unacceptable.
The federal budget cannot afford it, the individuals and states that will be picking up $500 billion in additional costs can't afford it, and the children and grandchildren who will be saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars added to the federal debt cannot afford it.
Instead of President Bush threatening to veto any attempt to amend the bill, he should be begging Congress to rescind it. The president, who cannot name a single mistake he made during his first term, should have no problem seeing that it was an error to push a flawed bill through Congress using cost estimates that were incorrect at best and fraudulent at worst.
There are openings
The legislation was flawed in any number of ways. Drug coverage is not means tested, so that ordinary taxpayers will be paying for drugs used by millions of senior citizens who could well afford to pay for their own prescriptions. The law prohibits any reimportation of drugs, including those from Canada. And most egregiously, the law specifically prohibits the government from negotiating with drug manufacturers for quantity discounts.
The president has been traveling the country arguing that action must be taken now to save Social Security from bankruptcy. But by any definition, Medicare is in much greater danger than Social Security.
To add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare when that addition could result in insolvency for the entire Medicare system defies logic, politics, prudence and morality.
President Bush should call upon the House and Senate to begin working immediately on a replacement plan that will provide a drug benefit to those who need it most while protecting traditional Medicare benefits for the nation's senior citizens.